THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
The Sunday Tribune
Perception of a wonderful kind
The Winner Of Sorrow By Brian Lynch
New Island 14.99 340pp
BRIAN Lynch’s elegantly weaved novel about the life and times of English 18th century poet and confirmed madman William Cowper comes slowly into focus. The opening chapters, in particular, with their shifts in time and place – starting with Cowper as an old man, but quickly moving in and out of his youthful memories – challenge a reader to persevere. It’s a challenge that becomes worth it. Slowly, the book reveals itself as a meticulously crafted piece of work, a mixture of biographical research, expansive imagination, and a dedication to the examination of the rigours of being a writer.
This is not a biography -as Lynch himself makes clear in the sleeve notes – but it nonetheless draws a comprehensive picture of Cowper’s strange and eccentric world, and most importantly, makes the reader want to know more about it.
Why, for example, does Cowper, impotent and inept, barely able to make his way in the world, attract the care, attention, and sexual attraction, of women, who flutter about him, attempting to have themselves noticed?
The passages detailing the relationship between Cowper and the widow Mary Unwin, with whom he grew into old age, are among the most sharply observed in the book – sad, weary and strangely warm. Take these perceptive words, for example, describing Unwin’s frame of mind after she had proposed marriage to Cowper, but remained sexually unfulfilled even after the engagement was set: ‘She had prepared herself for regret and hardly felt it, because, despite the dulled steel in her hair, she was still the same person and, more, she was actually improved, at least in the sense that she now knew what she wanted, which then had been something only imagined from reading novels.’
But Lynch’s writing climbs above the necessary craft of human observation.
He finds ways to make his words sing, and of taking us with him on an exploration into the recesses of Cowper’s mind; surreal, poetic passages indicate at once how detached the writer was from the real world, but also give a sense of how he derived his poetic life. There is agony: Cowper is afflicted by the presence of terrible voices in his head, to which he gives names – the Mocker, the Judge, the Accuser. But there is humour too, subtle and wry:
‘Sometimes he thanked God he was mad – you could laugh out loud and not have to explain yourself.’
Although this story is primarily the tale of an internal life – as Cowper struggles with the process of writing, turning thoughts into words, imagination into penned descriptions – Lynch doesn’t neglect the detail of the poet’s external world. Eighteenth century England, with the discrepancies between the lofty nature of its religious evangelism, and the grimy nature of much of its real life, is accurately captured.
Lynch is himself an accomplished poet, and his own, beautifully created writing is one of the most satisfying aspects of this novel. He has managed to grasp hold of that most difficult of tasks – using the power of words to tell a story – and finely tune it, so that both language and narrative become almost the one.
A fine achievement. A wonderful book.
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